Feminism feels like a tightrope; it’s time to dive off. Image from theblueroomblog.org.
I was recently reminded of the conservative nature of the town I live in. In preparing me to give expert witness testimony about domestic violence, my executive director emphasized that I should wear a skirt with my suit, not trousers. “We don’t want the jury to think we’re man-haters,” she said by way of explanation. She has a point, and I always wear a skirt to court.
But I HATE it. It seems like such a small deal, but at the end of the day it means I’m capitulating to patriarchal norms about femininity and the rightful role of women. Hell, since talking about domestic violence and male privilege is enough to make me a threat to the social order when I’m testifying in a case where a crime has been committed, it’s amazing that I’m even allowed the title of expert, let alone the chance to talk in front of men.
But why do I capitulate? Because, at the end of the day, what I need those jurors to understand is that so many victims are too powerless to testify themselves- or, somehow even worse, are giving testimony that is considered unreliable in the absence of another person’s objective expertise. I need them to listen to me more than I need to wear trousers.
Here’s what bugs me the most, though. This tightrope that so many feminists walk between being advocates and being palatable is a constant, never-ending fight to be heard without selling out. We have to be effective, but nonthreatening. We have to be politically savvy, but subservient. We have to challenge gender norms, but remain attractive to employers, friends, and enemies. We’re told to speak the truth, or at least shake things up, but then we’re consistently accused of crossing some invisible line. It’s like our spines are in constant danger of being removed.
Worse yet, we do it to ourselves. We accuse each other of being racist against white people when we talk about how American feminism has consistently ignored or minimized the impact of racism on sexism. We accuse each other of being partisan or focused on unattractive interest groups when we fight for the rights of Trans women. We call it “semantics” when arguing about whether “girl” is an appropriate term for an adult female. We’re told, constantly, to play nice in the name of some feminist marketing scheme.
Here’s what we really need to do, because we are feminists and need to be unapologetic about it. We need to be braver, to stop neutering (or spaying, I suppose) our message in the hopes of bringing another partial convert on board. We don’t help anyone when we do this. We don’t change the world with lukewarm catchphrases about girl power (sorry, Spice Girls). Changing the world, to paraphrase a favourite book title of mine, requires common sense and a lot of fire. Feminism isn’t all high heels, solo travel, and athletic prowess. It’s recognizing the insidious power dynamics that keep empowered womanhood from being achievable for so many women around the world. It’s unashamedly calling individuals and systems out on their misogyny, racism, and able-ism. It’s refusing to make excuses for violence and inequality. It’s choosing not to enable the power structures that keep so many of us in chains.
It’s time to start using that piss and vinegar that make all of us take life by the horns – that wonderful panache that has been born and nurtured in each of us – to truly change the world.